This summer, Iâ€™ve been lucky in my work: my interest in ancient history has led me to work at Archaeology Magazine and my love of family history resulted in an internship with the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society. Enter my Jewish heritage.
One of the projects NYG&BS interns work on in the summer is a personal genealogical inquiry, in which we investigate some aspect of our own family history through the resources NYC has to offer. We report back our findings after doing hands-on research. My topic is my fatherâ€™s family, from Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. Iâ€™ve always known more about my momâ€™s familyâ€™s origins than my dadâ€™s, but, to my surprise, the preliminary search has yielded results on a curious Jewish development: the family circle.
When my family came over from Russia in the first decade of the twentieth century, Iâ€™d imagine that it was hard to keep track of extended relatives, cousins, and great-uncles twice removed. To keep the Silver family connected, my great-grandparents participated in what was called a â€œfamily circle.â€ This group was a regular meeting of all the extended members of a certain family, usually in one individualâ€™s home. It was a chance to catch up, plan to help any other relatives still in the Old Country come over to America, and discuss any â€œfamily businessâ€ (despite the Mafia-esque phrase, the family business was just that: individual family membersâ€™ businesses and jobs). The â€œfamily circleâ€ was a common development amongst New York City Jews of the early twentieth century.
As I flipped through old family photos, one kept leaping out at me. In it, dozens of people, large and small, huddled together, their arms around each other. The back of the photo was inscribed, â€œFamily Circle. 1954.â€ These people were my relatives, most of whom I had never known. Who knows where they or their children were now? Theyâ€™d long since dispersed all over the country, leaving the nucleus of the family in Brooklyn behind to pursue their American Dream. They were all so close at one point, dependent on their blood relatives for survival in America, but the ties had loosened in the succeeding 56 years.
What had changed in each personâ€™s life? The obvious, to begin with: they moved away, got married, had children. But more than just that had altered: as each successive generation became more accustomed to American life, its members no longer needed that same structure. The first generation over spoke mostly Yiddish and needed that close group to adjust to America; the next generation, born Americans, did not. Did family mean less over time? I don’t think so: the meaning changed from a massive, extended group to a nuclear family. Closeness to one’s own family, nuclear or extended, has marked many of the relationships that I hold and that some of my friends of Jewish heritage hold.
Just like those successive generations of Jewish Americans, we all have drifted away from our original family and our original identity. When our ancestors, however long ago, came over, they probably identified with their mother country more than their new one, and rightfully so. Now, Iâ€™m an American only descended from Russian, Romanian, and Polish Jews, not a member of those communities in my own right. In my search to learn about my forefathers, Iâ€™ve uncovered a lot about the way they thought and lived. The closeness they shared may have been a result of their immigration, but the importance of family is something my family has passed down in successive generations. Perhaps the purpose of the family circle has not been that watered down, after all, just kept its original family values intact.